You’re Not A Bad Parent If You Can’t Afford To Save For College

Yep, you read it here first. It’s not a requirement to put your kids through school to be considered a good parent. In fact, it’s 100% cool if you can’t afford to save for college, and footing the bill could actually hinder your child.

Just think about all the things a kid can do to get themselves in trouble when they’re away from the nest for the first time. Now, imagine there’s a test to study for or a party to attend. Hmm…I’m willing to bet a kid with a full parental ride might toss the books and throw back a few drinks. Of course this isn’t true of all children who are fortunate enough to have their parents foot the entirety of their higher ed bill. But, it certainly does happen. With that said, I’m here to tell you that it’s okay if you can’t afford to save for college! Stop worrying. They’ll be okay. Now, get some sleep! Just kidding. Keep reading…

You’re No A Bad Parent If You Can’t Afford To Save For College



Pic I snapped at Harvard a few years ago – Your kid won’t get a better job by going here.

One ridiculous expectation floating around the parental universe these days is that you must save for college. I really want my readers to know that it’s absolutely okay if you can’t afford it. And, it’s absolutely okay to take care of yourself FIRST. In fact, it’s not selfish to take care of yourself first – It’s the smartest thing you can do. Really. Taking care of yourself first means funneling your money first towards priorities like basic living expenses, the possible purchase of a home,  and most importantly, saving for retirement.

Related: I Lived Tiny To Afford College

Save For Retirement Instead Of College


Fall stroll

We sure do love our kid – but we still put our own finances first.

If you’re anything like a lot of parents out there trying to get their finances on the right track, you’re wondering how on earth you’re going to juggle all the necessities AND save for college and retirement. Well, you can cross college off the list until everything else is taken care of first. And if you’re still in a position where you can’t afford to save for college, that’s okay. No long-term damage will be done to any child just because they lack a college fund. In fact, it could actually help them to become more fiscally responsible and work harder to achieve their goals.

If you’re struggling to put money away for your future but you’re also panicked about not having established a college account for your kids, you need to STOP. Breathe. And realize that saving for your own retirement should be just a notch below spending money on food and shelter.

Related: 7 Quick Side Hustles For Busy Parents

The Importance Of Your Financial Future


Pinterest Ready ImageWithout a plan in place for retirement, you might end up working well into your golden years. There won’t be any time for grandkids if you’re busy asking someone if they want fries with that. Sorry, but it does happen – and it doesn’t have to happen to you!

Retirement savings need to trump college savings Every. Single. Time. Trust me, your kid will thank you when they don’t have to foot your basic living expenses when they’re trying to buy a house and have kids of their own. Unfortunately, Mr. MMM and I are in this very situation. My mother and father did not save for their future; now, we’re bank rolling a lot of living expenses and medical bills for my mother. Thankfully, we can do it, but it’s still quite a chunk that’s going out each month. So please, put yourself and your financial future Above All Else.

Related: How We Avoided Massive Student Loan Debt

Parties All The Time


Enough tip-toeing around, let’s delve into some auxiliary benefits of not being able to afford to save for college:

  • First, you will likely be able to save a decent amount for your own retirement.
  • You might also be able to pay your house off before you retire – assuming you went ahead and took the real estate plunge at some point in your adult life.
  • Probably the biggest benefit of all – your kid might not party their little butts off when they do get to college. (I know I put my education first because I knew I was paying for it and I didn’t want to waste my time or my money.)

Related:How To Afford A College Education: Don’t Be An Idiot

What I Learned By Paying For College

 True story, my parents didn’t save a dime towards my college education. Interestingly, I’m sitting here today working for a major, global corporation with a master’s degree in my chosen field of study. Not too shabby for starting out at a community college (part-time) while working at a factory soldering electrical components together at 19 years old. I’d say paying for my own education worked in my favor. Oh! I forgot to mention that, because they didn’t pay for my education, I was much more mindful of how much I was spending and chose schools according to my nearly non-existent budget.

Related: Early Retirement Will Take A Little Longer If You’re Total DIKs

Put Yourself First


Mad Money Cat with a beer

Mad Money Cat always puts herself first.

Don’t get me wrong, I am all for saving for college and paying for college tuition if you are in a position to do so without hindering your own financial future. The skyrocketing costs of a higher education are matching or even exceeding the price of a home. If that isn’t nuts, I don’t know what is!

So again, I am here to let you know that you’re not a bad parent if you can’t afford to pay for college. Let go of the guilt and know that, by taking care of your own debts and financial future, you’ll be giving your children a wonderful gift. Besides, what good is paying for college if you won’t be able to afford groceries in your 70s?

There is no doubt about it, if you’re raising college-bound kids, you most certainly feel some sort of societal pressure to pay as much as you can of that bill, regardless of cost to you. But whatever you do, know that you’re not a bad parent just because you can’t afford to save for college. Do NOT deprive yourself of a stable financial future. You do NOT need to keep up with The Joneses. Remember, The Joneses are broke. Now, go forth and put yourself first!

What are your thoughts on this topic? Are you in a situation where you’re feeling guilty because you haven’t been able to fund a college account for your children?


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  • Daniel Apr 19, 2017, 4:01 pm

    I view it from a “pay it forward” thing as my parents gave it to me. A combination of them splitting my Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits and a steady (but effective pittance (LT 10% of my savings per year even if I follow my plan will go into the 529 plans)) should mean they each should have 100-130k available to them when they need it. Who knows what education will look like in 14 years or so?

  • Buddy Broome Apr 8, 2017, 7:15 pm

    Great article. I agree, it is nice if you can afford to pay for college, but parents sacrificing themselves financially can lead to major problems down the road. Thanks for sharing.

    • Mad Money Monster Apr 9, 2017, 4:58 pm

      Thanks! Yeah, unfortunately way too many parents do it.

  • Matt @ Lacking Cents Apr 6, 2017, 10:47 pm

    Great article, and something I think about frequently myself. My wife and I want to send our kids to private elementary and high school, which itself will cost well into the six figures. The idea of saving for college too is daunting.

    I like the points made by some of your other readers too. The fact that our kids will value their education the more they pay for it themselves.

    That’s all we can hope for, right?

    • Mad Money Monster Apr 7, 2017, 7:38 am

      That’s right! I think paying for private school/college is an extra if the parents are financially comfortable enough to take it on. It’s definitely not a requirement, and there are certainly instances where it hindered the child because they didn’t have skin in the game. Thanks for stopping by!

  • Daniel Palmer Mar 31, 2017, 5:38 am

    Agreed! Especially with your party point. Having the kids pay their own way ensures they value the education. What’s more, if parents stop paying for their kids’ education, kids might start demanding an ROI from their degree. Perhaps colleges will become a little more cost conscious, instead of offering every single amenity and luxury known to mankind.

    • Mad Money Monster Mar 31, 2017, 7:50 am

      I couldn’t have said it better myself!

  • Mariana Mar 30, 2017, 4:55 pm

    I love these kind of posts. All a parent owes to a child is providing home, food, security, safety and love. College education tuition is not included.
    I think, in many ways, it is an American mentality. People are surprised if a fellow parent does not stretch himself/herself thin to cover college bills.

    • Mad Money Monster Mar 30, 2017, 6:01 pm

      I agree! I think it’s mostly peer pressure. There are certainly many folks out there footing the bill for college without adequate savings for themselves. It’s a bad plan.

  • Ryan @ Just Another Dollar Mar 29, 2017, 12:46 pm

    My comment here isn’t so much from the perspective of a parent, but of someone whose parent’s were in this position. My parents were able to save enough for a couple of semesters of my college education and helped me out financially when I truly needed it, but they definitely were focused on their own situations as priority.

    Despite having ‘skin in the game’, I still managed to stumble plenty and ended up with a 6 year Bachelor’s degree and the student loans to prove it. I can assure you I’d have been much worse off and feel incredibly guilty for wasting my parents hard-earned money if they would have paid 100% for my education. The only thing I wish would’ve been different is having a good money conversation in the years leading up to college. I believe that my parents could have instilled in me an understanding that I would be responsible for paying my way earlier, and I would have developed a better savings strategy while I worked from age 15-18. In the end it all turned out fine, and I’m happy that my parents are in decent financial shape for retirement.

    • Mad Money Monster Mar 29, 2017, 1:40 pm

      Wow! Thanks for sharing your story. Yes, those early conversations about money are crucial. Unfortunately, not all parents have the knowledge to pass on to their children. Mine sure didn’t.

      Thankfully your parents saved for their retirement. And thankfully, you figured out the money game before it got too late. Congrats on that. And, thanks for your comment!

  • Jax Mar 29, 2017, 12:32 pm

    You point out many great arguments, but I don’t agree with everything. I absolutely don’t believe parents are “bad parents” if they can’t pay for college. It’s sometimes just not possible for a variety of reasons. I also think it’s important for parents to put their financial well being first. I’m sorry your parents put you in the position of having to help them out-but it’s lucky for them and nice of you to be able to do so!

    I also went to community college before university, and then got two Master’s degrees. I only took out loans for the second MA- my mom paid for my entire undergrad, I paid for my 1st year of grad school and then I got a fellowship that paid for my second year.

    I studied my butt off my entire college career because my mom taught me that the value of a dollar doesn’t change based on who’s pocket it comes out of. It didn’t matter if I was footing the bill or someone else was, it cost serious money to go to college so I had better take it seriously. I think (and full disclosure, I am childless so it is easy for me to have opinions) if you’re afraid your kid won’t take college seriously unless they are paying for it themselves, then you (the general you, not you specifically MMM!) may have taken a wrong turn somewhere in parenting.

    But, all of that aside, I think there is too much pressure to go to college. I don’t think everyone needs to. Everyone needs to have some kind of skill to earn meaningful employment, but college isn’t the only way to do that. I also don’t think every kid who wants to go to college has to do so right out of high school. It’s perfectly fine to wait a few years and save up money or learn better what you want to do.

    • Mad Money Monster Mar 29, 2017, 1:37 pm

      You make excellent points! Thanks for sharing your story. I absolutely agree that college isn’t The Only Path out there and I also think we there are probably too many people going to college and not gaining tangible skills. It’s a shame that trade schools are dying. And I’m certainly not saying that every kid that has their college paid for by their parents is going to crap away their opportunity. I was just giving one perspective for parents who are feeling guilty because they can’t find extra money to save for college. Thanks again for your thoughtful comment!


  • Jim @ Route To Retire Mar 29, 2017, 7:57 am

    Hey – I like the new site look!

    I’m with you on the college costs for kids. I’m currently putting a small (very small) amount in my daughter’s 529 plan every month, but if it ends up being able to pay for a semester or two of even a public university, I’d be surprised.

    I paid for my own college tuition and it was definitely a learning experience. The irony is that even with that debt I had, I don’t think I’d be as far ahead as I am today if it had been paid for for me. I worked throughout school and learned the importance of money management.

    Kids needs a little skin in the game to make the time in school more valuable, in my opinion.

    — Jim

    • Mad Money Monster Mar 29, 2017, 8:27 am

      Thanks! It took me all weekend to redo the site. Still working on it.

      I like the way you put it! “Skin in the game” – That is absolutely what they need. And I agree, I don’t think I’d be this far ahead (despite the mistakes I made early on) if I didn’t have that huge responsibility at the onset.


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